Long Back from Turkey — and Turkeys

Happy and blessed Thanksgiving.  May a spirit of gratitude gracefully inspire all aspects of your life.

I can’t believe that it’s been almost been a month since the Priests’ Trip to Turkey ended. (See post below; but also see http://prieststurkey.wordpress.com/ for all the details and up-to-date information.)  Since then, I’ve been busily pursuing the details of parish ministry, with a big focus on our Stewardship Renewal, as well as planning for leading my seventh Early Christian World Pilgrimage to Turkey after Easter.  (Why not consider coming, or at least helping to publicize it among your friends and online contacts?)

Have you wondered why the bird we delight in on this day and the country have the same name.  There’s an interesting story, and more, behind this.

Turkey and Turkeys

Occasionally in traveling through Turkey, one gets a glimpse of a turkey — yes the very same same bird you put stuffing in last Thursday morning, and then it stuffed you last Thursday evening. I was also intrigued to find out that the word for this very same bird in Turkish is “hindi,” as in “associated with India.” Hmm . . . there has to be an interesting story here.

The first question, of course, is Why is a bird that’s native to North America called by the same name as the country that dominated the Middle East at the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and got this whole Thanksgiving business started?

Two disclaimers: For me very few things are as much fun as etymological sleuthing. Some people can identify with that, I hope, while I suspect a lot of people would say “Get a life!” Secondly, my source for this whole little essay is Wikipedia, the first and usually last resort of the casual, lazy, and/or deadline-pressed researcher.

The scientific name for the wild turkey, the North American ancestor of the domesticated (might one say factory-farmed?) bird that weighed down your table last week, and subsequently weighed down you tummy, is Maleagris gallipavo. The genus Maleagris is Greek for guineafowl, native to Africa (hence the guinea), but known and domesticated from ancient times (hence the Greeks knew the bird as meleagris.)

Do we have the seeds for confusion here? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

In Europe, guineafowl were often know as turkey fowl (or turkey hen or turkey cock) because they were usually imported through Turkey. If you look on a map, you can easily see why Turkey was the center of international trade in those days.

The North American wild Turkey looks kind of like the guineafowl, so it was readily labeled turkey by unimaginative and perhaps literacy-challenged explorers of the sixteenth century.

Recall that, at first, the America was thought to have been the east coast of Asia. That’s what Columbus was looking for. The Europeans vied for finding a way to trade with the Orient without having to enrich the coffers of the Turks. While the Spaniards went south, the Brits concentrated more on colonizing the northern parts, which is how New England got its name.

So, naturally, when they came across this native bird that looked a lot like a guineafowl but wasn’t, they gave it the same name. Interestingly, because Turkey, or more properly the Ottoman Empire, was close enough and friendly enough with the European powers to be a trading partner, and there was a lot of positive interaction and cultural exchange. At the same time, Turkey was clearly eastern — heirs to the Greek world that never really became integrated with the Latin and European west, as well as heirs to the Muslim empires and outlook — and so was always seen as both exotic and threatening.

It’s fascinating to go through the words for “turkey” in various languages to see the influence of conquest and trade in that era of global European colonization. As I already mentioned, in Turkish the bird is called “hindi,” reflecting the belief that it originated even farther east. Arabic, Armenian and modern Hebrew also call it by names deriving from India. In Slavic languages, such as Russian or Polish, it’s a variation on indyk, which may refer to either Indian or Native American Indian.

In French, it’s also called poule d’Inde (or simply dinde) meaning “chicken from India.” But in Greek it’s called gallopoula, “French chicken.”

In Portuguese, and the languages under its colonial influence, it is called peru, and associated with that South American country.

In European Spanish, it’s called pavo, meaning “peafowl,” confusing it with another big bird. However, in the Spanish of the Americas, it is often referred to by names derived from native tongues, such as Mexican gaujolote.

Finally, in Persian it’s booghalamoon which may be an onomatopoeia of the male bird’s distinctive gobble and Chinese and several other languages use words, such as “fire chicken,” that describe it’s red wattle.

So, where did Turkey (in Turkish  Türkiye) get its name? The term “Türk” or “Türük” was first used to describe the many different tribes in central Asia around the eighth century AD. They are too many to list, but some of the names, such as Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Avars would be among them.

May the glow of giving thanks gracefully give rise to the anticipation of Advent, in which the await with joy the coming of God’s greatest gift.

I love you,

Fr. Tom

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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